Migration has played a key role on the 2016 Brexit vote. Even though recent research has shown that the importance of the immigration issue has been steadily declining, the question of what will happen to the migrant populations already settled in its territory have become acute. In this blog, Jeremy Woloszyn will focus especially on the Polish diaspora, which has become one of the largest diasporas in Britain and often portrayed in a negative way.
Written by Jeremy Woloszyn, PhD Candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London.
This blog is part of a policy report called "NEXTEUK – EU and UK Relations: Where will we be in 2031?".
Besides the purely political and economic aspects of Brexit, one old but still relevant aspect seems to be crucial to study, as it could have led indirectly to the pro-Brexit vote. By this, I mean the migration issue.
In 2016, the year of Brexit, an Ipsos MORI survey of adults aged under 65 in 25 countries around the world asked what issues most worried them (Ipsos MORI, 2016). Among those countries surveyed, the UK was the only country where immigration was the top concern. No one will therefore be surprised by the conclusion of a recent study by Goodwin which supports our initial idea: ‘Our evidence confirms that strong public concerns over immigration, and its perceived effects on the country and on communities, were central to explaining the 2016 vote for Brexit’ (Goodwin & Milazzo, 2017). Since then, and the actual exit from the EU, the situation seems to have calmed down and the importance of the immigration issue has been steadily declining, according to recent research (Portes, 2021). However, the evolution of British migration policy and the question of what will happen to the migrant populations already settled in its territory have become acute, inviting the renewal of the dual analyses of citizenship and post-migrant populations.
This article will focus especially on the Polish diaspora, which has become one of the largest diasporas in Britain since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, allowing many workers to enter the UK labour market. This massive arrival, often portrayed by the British press using the stereotype of the Polish plumber, has been forging a visible and negative image of a cheap, competitive labour force, which has often been cited as one of the factors that led to Brexit (Buonadonna, 2016). After recalling the migration context of Poland, we will look at the post-Brexit migration context and the state of the EU-scheme applications.
Due to its history, punctuated by wars and territorial annexations, Poland has witnessed successive waves of emigration of varying significance; some sources estimate the Polish diaspora to be more than 20 million worldwide, while Poland's population is only 38 million. Today, although contemporary motives for displacement differ from the traditional ones, such as wars, the total migratory flow remains substantial. According to Polish Official Statistical Office, nearly 2.5 million Poles still live outside the national territory, with more than a quarter living in the United Kingdom (Główny Urząd Statystyczny, 2019). The Polish language has thus become the most popular language in England and Wales, after English and Welsh (Booth, 2013) and Poles continue ‘To be the most common non-British nationality in the UK since 2007’, according to the Office for National Statistics (Office for National Statistics, 2019). Given the size of this community, the ethnic group in question represents a particularly interesting subject to follow regarding its evolution in the new post-Brexit context, as well as to discuss the future evolution of Polish migration flows into the UK.
Since the June 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union, the future has not looked as bright as it used to for EU citizens. If Theresa May wanted the Poles to stay in the United Kingdom, is this also the case for the Poles? Oftentimes, migrants find themselves experiencing identity issues created by the migration process, as well as by the stress of adapting to the host society. It is during the process of uprooting and contact with a new society that a reconstructed national identity of a diasporic and transnational nature manifests itself -- a sociocultural space that is neither the culture of the country of origin, nor that of the host country, but which is an 'in-between' space that may appear all the more aggressive after the Brexit vote. Moreover, the Polish economy, whose unemployment rates are the lowest in the EU, according to the latest Eurostat figures, has significantly improved in recent years and does not seem to have been much impacted by Covid, which could convince some Poles to return to Poland (Bukowski & Paczos, 2021). This might be an answer to the complex relationships that exist in the British Isles between anti-European sentiment, post-colonial racism and a form of rejection of these populations. How many of them will take up this position is quite difficult to estimate with precision, but the latest statistics could be helpful with formulating a hypothesis on current and future migration.
Wednesday, 30 June was the official deadline for EU nationals living in the UK to apply for settled status. According to a recent BBC article published on 29 June 2021, ‘far more EU citizens have been living in the country than previous estimates suggested. As of 31 May, the government had received 5.6 million applications for the post-Brexit scheme […]. That is far higher than the official estimate when the scheme was fully opened in March 2019, that there were 3.7 million (non-Irish) EU nationals in the country’. Although these figures cannot be relied upon, and there are not really 6m EU citizens living permanently and continuously in the UK, in the opinion of Jay Lindop, Deputy Director of the Centre for International Migration, it will come as no surprise that the national community with the highest number of applications, with around 1 million applications already examined by the end of June, is the Polish community (Lindop, 2021). Only a minority of the migrants who had already settled seem to have actually left, while most of the former assimilated diaspora continue to live their British-Polish lives in the UK.
Time will tell us what impact Brexit will have on the diasporic communities that make up the UK. But the Polish community will probably remain an important diaspora in the UK, although it will experience a slowdown, as will European migration as a whole. Since the ‘EU’ category will gradually disappear (e.g., student fees), European citizens will be in equal competition with non-EU migration, which may have been ‘disadvantaged’ in the past. The influx of EU economic newcomers, often defined as labour migration, will thus probably be slowed down by more restrictive measures, as has been confirmed by recent ONS data since 2016. In this way, in 2019, ‘Non-EU net migration was the highest since 2004; this follows a gradual increase in immigration of non-EU citizens over the past five years for both work and study […] [although] EU net migration has fallen to a level last seen in 2009, due mainly to a decrease in EU immigration’ (Office for National Statistics, 2019). Let's guess that this will continue until it balances out in a few years to equalise countries historically tied up with Great Britain. It will then be interesting to see how British and European migration and international policy develops, as the massive presence of a population, as well as many diaspora-based lobbying associations, can represent a significant political force, both internally and externally. Which side would the UK be on in case of a potential row between Poland and the EU in 2030? The weight of its diaspora could then play an important role.
Booth, R. (2013, February 1). Polish now England’s second language. DAWN.COM. https://www.dawn.com/2013/02/01/polish-now-englands-second-language/
Bukowski, P., & Paczos, W. (2021, May 19). Why is Poland’s economy emerging so strongly from the pandemic? A comparison with the UK. EUROPP. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2021/05/19/why-is-polands-economy-emerging-so-strongly-from-the-pandemic-a-comparison-with-the-uk/
Główny Urząd Statystyczny. (2019). Informacja o rozmiarach i kierunkach czasowej emigracji z Polski w latach 2004-2018 (p. 4). Główny Urząd Statystyczny. https://stat.gov.pl/download/gfx/portalinformacyjny/pl/defaultaktualnosci/5471/2/12/1/informacja_o_rozmiarach_i_kierunkach_czasowej_emigracji_z_polski_w_latach_2004-2018.pdf
Goodwin, M., & Milazzo, C. (2017). Taking back control? Investigating the role of immigration in the 2016 vote for Brexit. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 19(3), 450–464. https://doi.org/10.1177/1369148117710799
Ipsos MORI. (2016). New global poll finds Britons most worried about immigration. Ipsos MORI. https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/new-global-poll-finds-britons-most-worried-about-immigration
Lindop, J. (2021, July 2). Are there really 6m EU citizens living in the UK? | National Statistical. National Statistical. https://blog.ons.gov.uk/2021/07/02/are-there-really-6m-eu-citizens-living-in-the-uk/
Office for National Statistics. (2019). Migration Statistics Quarterly Report—Office for National Statistics. Office for National Statistics. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/migrationstatisticsquarterlyreport/february2019
Office for National Statistics. (2019). Population of the UK by country of birth and nationality—Office for National Statistics. Główny Urząd Statystyczny. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/ukpopulationbycountryofbirthandnationality/july2018tojune2019
Paola Buonadonna (2016, June, 3). First they came for the Polish plumbers: a dystopian view of life post-Brexit. The Daily Telegraph.
Portes, J. (2021, April 12). UK and Immigration After Brexit. MIDIB. https://midib.hypotheses.org/
Vertovec, S. (2005). The Political Importance of Diasporas. In Centre on Migration Policy and Society (Issue Working Paper No. 13).
 A recurring number commonly used by many Internet sources, but whose scientific relevance is difficult to confirm.
 Underestimated number based on the address of permanent residence declared by each Pole. In the case of transnational migrants that return regularly to Poland, they usually do not change their permanent address in Poland.
 One example is the worldwide attention given to the Kurds following the capture of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 and the organized mass demonstrations that took place in dozens of localities around the world. (Vertovec, 2005).
Photo credits: Agata Nyga, Pixabay.